My father was my first voice of reason. A military officer, an intellectual and a Virgo, he still relishes his “job” of poking holes in theories and plans, especially with his wide-eyed firstborn (me). My mother describes me with my little hands on my little hips, impassioned in my defense to Daddy that my doll was not ugly or that I could sing the whole Sesame Street song. I don’t have vivid recall of the exchanges, but the lessons are in my marrow. With a whimsical kid on his hands, Daddy’s job was imprinting logic alongside my emotions. If only I’d collected a dollar for every time he’s asked, “Now, what sense does that make?”
Preschool me also wanted presents on my sister’s birthday. I’d been the only child in our extended family and was slow to appreciate the intrusion of a sibling and cousins. My parents explained that little sisters get their own day, too. Logical, but I was still inconsolable. It felt grossly unfair that she would open gifts when I had none.
— Sponsored Video —
I remember that petulant child, displeased at being removed from the center of attention, when someone insists that “All Lives Matter.” The conversation about race is America’s most urgent birthday song, one we’ve been faking the words to for over a century.
The Black Lives Matter movement is a rally to acknowledge the historical trauma and systemic oppression in America. Not against all lives, but lives like mine, coached to be twice as good in order to be viewed as an equal. The lives poisoned with toxic drinking water and failing schools. Lives denied the luxury of routine traffic stops. The lives our nation has to be reminded to care about are the Black ones.
Since the beginning of America, the experience for Black people chronicles profound callousness from the populace and obscene violence at the direction and hands of authority. Our lives have been devalued wholesale, across centuries, sectors and through every lip-service reform. Even emancipation was a political move to benefit white farmers, not to liberate slaves. In fact, Lincoln called a meeting asking Black leaders of the day to relocate freed slaves overseas. Police forces began with slave patrols. In exchange for hunting runaways for the landowning elite, poor white sharecroppers earned an elevated social class above enslaved Blacks. The patrol squads had one job: rounding up Black slaves. Any Black person caught alive and alone was fair game. If the men or women captured were actually escaped, even better. Both the enforcers and the elite had determined that the Black person’s truth couldn’t matter. A century later, the civil rights movement launched not because of an overwhelming desire to adjust the arc of hateful history but because our president was embarrassed by the protests and criticism from foreign leaders.
Today is no different. All lives don’t matter in a nation shaped with white supremacist thinking: that some lives are the standard and others are incidental. Some Americans fight ferociously for all lives. Some fight for lives that resemble their own. Some only make fighting poses on social media. Some won’t fight at all if the lives are Black and Brown, because America has told them our lives aren’t their concern. Historically, our deaths don’t fluster the general population until cities are set on fire. Still, some will lean into an empty habit of romanticizing about police honor, ignoring the noose, the hose, the dogs, the smoking guns.
With every fresh death, I am heartbroken and astounded by the willful denial of police misconduct and institutional disregard for Black lives. I have yet to watch compilation footage of white people being chased, choked, kicked, tased, punched, framed and shot in the back by police every few months. It was a Black man whose spine was snapped in half by Baltimore police because he was afraid of what talking to an officer might do. It was a Black preteen shot by Cleveland police for playing with a toy. A Black 6-year-old Orlando girl arrested for a tantrum. A compliant Black Minnesota man shot in his car in front of his 4-year-old daughter. An unarmed man startled awake in a Milwaukee park and shot by a officer. A Black woman arrested and assaulted in Texas for failing to signal a lane change and found curiously hanged in her jail cell. A Black Atlanta man pursued and killed by racists while out jogging, and the police and justice departments refusing to make arrests until a national social media storm forced their attention months later. An innocent Louisville woman gunned to death, sleeping in her bed. A chemistry student pulled over for speeding and shot six times on the New Jersey Turnpike.
And, of course, George Floyd. Murdered by a police officer with a documented history of violence and unpunished abuses with three other officers standing guard, their arrogance and presumed invincibility on display to helpless bystanders. Protests for George Floyd have taken place in every state and multiple countries around the world. And still, too many of my neighbors will cling to a notion that America is not failing as a land of freedom.
What sense does that make?
The distinction between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter is neither subtle nor aesthetic. Asserting “all lives” or, worse, “blue lives” is like crying for a present on your little sister’s birthday and obnoxiously undermines the essential point: The suffering of Black people has been codified into the principles and policies of the United States since the beginning of the United States. This self-evident truth is baked into our apple pie, our baseball games, our anthems and our police culture.
Until the life in every recliner, kitchen nook, carpool lane, golf cart, elected seat, yoga class and wine club can admit that we’ve gotten this wrong, America will keep getting this wrong. The comfortable will remain comfortable – shielded from accountability, responsibility and truth — while Black and Brown Americans are regularly assaulted, denied, mocked and murdered.
Y’know, as if our lives don’t matter at all.